SPORTS

Montreal Stars look to three-peat as Canadian Women's Hockey League opens

10/19/2012 04:16 EDT | Updated 12/19/2012 05:12 EST
The Montreal Stars hope to have the same impact on the Canadian Women's Hockey League that the Montreal Canadiens once made on the NHL.

The Stars are so stacked with talent they look like a female version of the 1970s Canadiens. They be looking to make it three Clarkson Cup championships in a row, and four in the last five years, when the five-team CWHL begins its regular season on Saturday.

The visitors to the Etienne Desmarteau Centre for the season opener will be the team expected to be the Stars' biggest threat this season, the Boston Blades.

"Boston has added so many U.S. Olympians, they'll be so good," Stars forward Caroline Ouellette said this week. "On paper, they may be the team to beat."

Another game Saturday has the Toronto Furies playing the Brampton Hockey Club. The fifth team, Alberta, which will play a full 24-game schedule after playing only 15 in 2011-12, begins at home Oct. 27 against Brampton.

The CWHL, entering its fifth season, features most of the players from the Canadian and U.S. national teams as well as top players who have graduated out of university hockey.

Players aren't paid, but at least their expenses are covered. And they see it as a first step to one day having a fully professional women's league. Many of them have day jobs, so practices are at night and games are on weekends.

The Stars roster includes national team aces like Meghan Agosta, who set a league scoring record with 41 goals and 80 points and won MVP honours as a CWHL rookie last season, as well as defenceman Catherine Ward, goalies Kim St. Pierre and Charlene Labonte and a new forward Haley Irwin.

There's also a veteran of the U.S. squad, Julie Chu, who Ouellette calls the best two-way player in the women's game.

Labonte, defenceman Cathy Chartrand and forward Ann-Sophie Bettez joined the Stars from the university ranks this season.

''We have a lot of happy problems,'' said Ouellette. ''Lots of talent, but sometimes it can be dangerous when you have too much talent. We have to make sure we put it all together.

''I've been on teams that were underdogs and on teams that were expected to win. It's a different kind of pressure. It's more difficult to win the big prize when you're expected to win. People you play against have nothing to lose and they play in a desperate way.

''But I think we have good leadership and a such a strong core of players who care for each other.''

Boston saw U.S. star Angela Ruggiero retire, but can still answer with 13 players with national team experience including Kelli Stack, Megan Duggen, and a new star in Hilary Knight. They also picked up defence ace Molly Engstrom, an American who played for Brampton last season.

The Blades, who wear black and gold like the NHL's Bruins, also have Canadian goaltender Genevieve Lacasse.

The two Toronto-area teams also got better, and not only because they picked up some players from a team in Burlington, Ont., that folded.

Like Montreal, Brampton has five players on Canada's team for the Nov. 6-10 Four Nations Cup in Finland — Gillian Apps, Jayna Hefford, Vicki Bendus, Courtney Birchard and Bailey Bram. Their top scorer from last season was national team veteran Cherie Piper.

Toronto has four on the Four Nations squad _ Tessa Bonhomme, Natalie Spooner, Rebecca Johnston and Jennifer Wakefield. They also picked up Burlington goalie Christina Kessler and added Cornell graduate Catherine White. Sommer West retired as a player and now coaches the Furies.

Alberta has Jocelyne Laracque, Tara Watchorn, Meaghan Mikelson and Bobbi-Jo Sluser and a new coach in Tim Bothwell.

''All the teams are going to be pretty even,'' said Montreal's Ward. ''Every team gained younger, very talented players, and every team has depth now. Instead of one or two lines, it's at least three or four. So it's going to be great.''

St. Pierre took last season off to have a baby and has returned to a crowded situation in goal. Not only is her national squad teammate Labonte now with the Stars, but there is Jenny Lavigne, who was in goal for the championship in the spring.

''I'm used to it,'' said St. Pierre. ''It's been like this with the national team for the last 10 years.''

The Stars are hoping to fill their 1,100-seat rink. Tickets are only $10 for adults to see many of the players who battle for Olympic gold every four years.

They sell out for special events, but often there are only 200 or 300 fans on hand.

''What we want is one day to become a women's professional league,'' said St. Pierre. ''It's not easy because the boys are taking all the space.

''We'd like to get paid and not work, but the reality is people either go to school or work full time. But I believe one day it will happen because the calibre is so good now.''

With the NHL season stalled by a lockout that will run at least until Nov. 1, there's an opening to draw hockey-starved fans to games.

''Hopefully they don't get back on the ice too quickly so we'll get more attention,'' St. Pierre joked. ''But we miss (NHL) hockey on TV too.

''This is a different game. There's no fights. But there's so much to offer. And it's not expensive.''

MORE:cpSports